Known to the devout as Kashi, the Luminous, the City of Light was founded by Shiva. Varanasi's association with Shiva stretches back to the dawn of time: legend has it that after his marriage to Parvati, Shiva left his dwelling in the Himalayans to come and live in Varanasi with all the gods in attendance.
Death is an important aspect of Varanasi life. Along the ghats--long flights of stone steps on the waterfront--smoke rises from the cremation grounds to signal the final release. Being released in Varanasi is an aspiration of many Hindus, who believe that to die in Varanasi and have one's ashes committed to the holy Ganges is to the key to attaining release of their tormented souls from the unceasing cycles of death and rebirth. Put very very simply, Hindus and Buddhists believe that a soul goes through endless cycles of life and death--i.e., after one dies, one's soul reincarnates as someone or something else to live and die all over again. The ultimate attainment of a Hindu or Buddhist is to achieve enlightenment, where his/her soul is released from the cycle of life and death. So Varanasi is the ultimate destination of many pilgrims, who save all their life to be able to just make the requisite once-in-a-lifetime journey to clean away all sins in the chilly, sanctified water. My guide told me that Varanasi's demographics make it a very old city, as widows and the elderly come here to seek refuge or to live out their final days.